Jon Rose is a former professional surfer and the founder of Waves For Water, a non-profit organization that provides clean water solutions to people who need them. For more information, visit

Photo: Waves for Water

I was aboard a boat off the coast of Sumatra in September 2009 when I felt a slight shake. At the time I was on a surf trip and had no way of knowing a 7.6-magnitude earthquake had destroyed the nearby city of Padang. More than 1,000 lives were lost, and 100,000 people were left homeless. But I didn’t comprehend the full extent of the damage until I came to shore and saw the devastation.

At the time, I was en route to Bali to deliver 10 water filters for what would have been my first mission with Waves for Water, a charity I’d founded with the goal of delivering clean drinking water to every person in need. With tragedy striking Sumatra, I made my way into Padang to put water filters in the hands of rescue workers so they could help survivors in need of clean water. That was really the start of Waves for Water.

In the process of transitioning from a pro surfer to a social good activist, I’ve learned a whole lot about how easy it is to make a big difference in the world, and how we all have a responsibility both to have fun and to do our part.

From Pro Surfer to Social Good Entrepreneur

I’ve always been socially conscious, or have tried to be — though as a pro surfer I had a pretty self-indulgent lifestyle. Like many young pro athletes, my focus was on me and me alone. I literally felt like I had the keys to the kingdom — youth, talent, sex appeal, money — and no real chaperones of any kind. It felt lawless and exciting, but, after a while, also a bit one-dimensional.

After traversing through Indonesia, South Africa, India, Brazil, and other so-called “developing countries,” I began to notice that in nearly all the places I surfed, there was a huge need for clean drinking water. And I started to think that helping out with the water crisis might be a way to make my life about more than just me.

My dad got involved in the water cause before me, and I supported him in his passion. He started Rain Catcher, which works to provide clean water to children in the developing world, and I was attracted to its mission. About six years later, while looking for a way to transition out of my surfing career, I thought, “I can do that, too.”

Making a Difference, One Traveler at a Time

Waves for Water was born out of realizing I could go to all the at-risk places I’d been to while surfing — only this time, I could help. Eventually, the project adopted more of a “special ops” mission for providing urgent relief in disaster-struck areas. We call this guerilla humanitarianism.

I wanted other travellers to realize how easy it is to incorporate social good into their trips, and so we started a Clean Water Courier program, through which travelers can purchase filters directly from our website and deliver them to destinations all over the world. The program provides people with a new tool (in the form of water filter) to engage with the communities they travel through in ways they never have before. And it serves as an amazing bridge between foreign cultures and allows us to bond over something that we all need: water. The program also occasionally helps out closer to home, as demonstrated in the video below:

Personally, once I started to travel in this way, my experiences became so much richer. I was interacting with locals that I never would have spoken to otherwise, visiting schools and medical clinics, or chatting with taxi drivers — I was weaving myself into the local fabric of communities via a purpose bigger than myself. Not only do I end up making an impact in the lives of the people I help, but my own life and perspective have been changed and enhanced.

What Matters Most: Helping Out While Having Fun

What’s most meaningful to me at this point is doing my part and having fun while doing it. I’ve come to believe that if you stick to doing what you can do, you never lose — and you’re always winning.

We all have the ability to do our part, and what determines the reach of our efforts is scale. I can put 10 water filters in my bag, deliver them to an at-risk community, and potentially save thousands of lives. That on its own is wonderful. But if I get other people involved, and if companies, private donors, and sponsors join in, then I’m going through a lot of the same motions, but scaling up the results. It’s incredible to realize how much one individual is capable of accomplishing with just a little community support.

Photo: Waves for Water

The biggest misconception about global challenges such as clean water access is that the problem is so big that one person can’t make a difference on their own. But that’s simply not true. One filter can provide 100 people with access to clean water for five-plus years. This completely destroys the myth of powerlessness and allows all of us to make a profound difference in the world.

My advice to everyone? Go out there and serve yourself first, do the things that make you happy, follow your passions… And then plug purpose into that by serving others along the way. The “martyr model” is old and tired. Besides, there’s just too much fun to be had out there!

When I was a kid, my dad used to ask me if I was having fun whenever I was doing anything. If I said “no,” he’d say, “Then why are you doing it?” It’s been a pleasure to discover that having fun and doing something meaningful can be one and the same pursuit.

Small photo: Waves for Water

Want to help immediately? Join Waves for Water and KIND Snacks to help rebuild a firefighter’s home which was lost during Hurricane Sandy:

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